The question will be asked for the next few decades: “Where were you when you found out Michael Jackson died?”. Like the deaths of Elvis Presley, John Lennon and the 9/11 tragedy the death of Michael Jackson will become a major milestone people will use to mark the important times of their lives. As our society becomes more and more celebrity-obsessed the instances we will use the lives of celebrities to measure our own will continue to grow, as Jackson’s death reminds us.
Whether you are a fan of Jackson’s music or not, he was a pop culture icon and quite possibly the most well-known person on our planet. That point was hit home when I was working out in the gym yesterday only to be surprised by the headlines accompanying his death. At first, only TMZ.com reported his death – kind of weird as TMZ.com is mostly a gossip site – but soon CNN and Fox News and all of the other more respected news sites soon followed suit. What was unsettling was that most of the others there took his death in stride, not surprised at Jackson’s sudden passing. I am guessing not many actually believed it, being exposed to so many Jackson rumors over the years. Alas, it is true and one of the most talented individuals ever is gone.
As for me, I used to be a fan. I liked the candy-floss pop of the Jackson Five when I was a child and enjoyed the cartoon when I was a wee lad in the early ’70’s. For all appearances, at that time Jackson seemed like a normal kid, despite all of the fame and the trappings which accompany such notoriety. When his first solo record as an adult, Off The Wall, came out – I was hooked. Though not the deep soul of someone like James Brown or Wilson Pickett, Jackson’s music had a perfect mix of the funk of the past and the R&B grooves oif the future. One listen to Jackson’s hit Rock With You will bear that out. Though the song is a killer disco song, if you really listen to it, the song has all of the elements of Jackson’s later work on such albums as Thriller and Bad but without all of the over the top elements such as Vincent Price laughing maniacally in the background or Eddie Van Halen playing a guitar solo. It is simply one of the best dance songs ever written, at a time when Jackson appeared to be just a regular guy (as much as a star can appear as a regular guy) with loads of talent and charisma. Though the album is mostly forgotten today, Off The Wall is my favorite Michael Jackson album as it comes without any of the baggage larding his future releases. He did not have to surpass himself, create any bloated statement or try to come up with the most popular album of all time. All Jackson had to do was what he did: simply sing his ass off to some of the best R&B recorded at the time. Maybe radio will play some of it now, lifting the unofficial ban the business had placed on his songs since his trials in the ’90’s.
That great album is an example of what I will try to remember when it comes to Jackson. The talent and not the craziness he life turned into post-Thriller, an album which foretold the beginning of the end as far as I was concerned. For as much as he loved Thriller – the wealth and fame it gave him, those songs and being able to perform them in front of his fans – I believe the album ultimately weighed him down and put him into a corner he could never escape. Each album had to be better than Thriller, and none ever could. He was forced to accept he would never completely overcome that recording – even though he was only in his twenties at the time – and would, from then onward, be looked at as if his best days were behind him with only whatever craziness he could conjure up (and there was plenty) to keep his legend growing.
I am going to listen to Off The Wall a lot these next few days, and try to remember a Jackson who still looked and acted normal, but sang with an incredible and otherworldly style and talent that surpassed just about anyone else. Ultimately, that is how we should remember him – as the genius he was and hopefully let the tortured elements of his childhood and later life slip into the ether because as much joy as he sincerely tried to bring others, he never seemed to have much himself. The public must blame itself somewhat for building and then destroying its’ heroes – but we can change that by remembering his music, which is really how he should be remembered anyway.